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My heart was breaking.

My marriage had failed. The relationship suddenly ended, abandoned, when the man I was married to cleared out of my life forever. I had wanted him gone, yet still I was reeling in shock and loss.

In the way that only sudden loss can inspire, I found myself shoving various and often copious amounts of insights, ideas, new projects, sugar, cigarettes, the occasional diet soda and all the wrong kinds of love into the spot that had opened up in my soul.

They call it a rebound for a reason: A split-second, built-in reaction learned through practice. This is true be it basketball, or love. And I had practiced it many times before, throughout my adult life, this stuffing of love into the empty places where other things should be. It was a practiced response.

He was known to me, this rebound: We’d been acquaintances for a few years. He paid attention to me, looked me in the eye. He had kids, beautiful ones.

And he helped me fight off the deep internal sense that I deserved to be abandoned. That I was broken. My mind told me that I WAS good enough: kind (most of the time); Fair, outgoing, adventurous; A keeper. I was surrounded by love to prove this. In the days and months after the abandonment, family, friends, and colleagues had come rushing to my side, into my days and evenings with phone calls, with trips, and with love. Pure love.

It was not enough to plug the hole. Created not by the abandonment itself, but by something much earlier and deep-seated, I rebounded into the easy salve, an attempt to make a scar disappear.

We all know how that works: It doesn’t. He wasn’t right for me, he wasn’t right to me. And yet, I kept him around. It wasn’t healthy, but I couldn’t leave. We were both complicit in trying to weave this bandage.

Without being able to admit it, name it, or see it, I was floundering. I was adrift – in love, in self-worth, in sense of self.

The Wolf, docked at Sailabration, was unmistakable

The Wolf, docked at Sailabration, was unmistakable

Then, in July 2012, the Topsail Schooner Wolf sailed back into my life in the port of Baltimore. I recognized her pulling into her slip from across the harbor – she was unmistakable. Brown hull, brown masts. Pirate flag and Conch Republic Flag – the Key West emblem — flying off the halyards to the stern, the back of the boat.

She was the smallest of the fleet come to the harbor to visit Baltimore as part of the week-long Sailabration, and her slip was tucked away from the main docks. Yet still hundreds flocked to visit her, to sail her. The Wolf is like that: She is a pirate ship, with her salt-spray grey rope for her lines, and the wolf head that forms the ship’s figurehead. This is no sleek racing ship with winches and machinery: It takes manpower to haul and trim her sails. It takes a crew to make her live.

Boarding Wolf again for the first time in decades.

Boarding Wolf again for the first time in decades.

Wolf is the closest-thing you’ll get to a modern-day pirate ship: she saves souls, equitably, firmly, lovingly. As though this is trumpeted through her steel hull, pirate flag and hodge-podge crew, people flock to Wolf, even when she is surrounded by wooden-hulled beauties of teak and oak. She is different, set apart, and she calls to those who recognize in her the need for equal balance of discipline and freedom. This is the seemingly incongruous aspect of a pirate ship: in her seemingly hedonistic spirit, instead there is much to be uncovered about the spirit of being human.

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I’d been adrift the FIRST time I’d found the Wolf in 1996, sitting dockside in the harbor of Key West.

I’d fled to Key West on the heels of a family secret revealed – one that everyone knew except me. Wrestling with this new information, something I should have seen before, I felt betrayed. Flummoxed. Lost. In the midst of college classes and a full-time job at a TV station, I’d been unable to synthesize it, and I ran from the disbelief and misunderstanding that dogged my heels through an entire spring.

I ran to the edge of the world. Key West is at the end of a chain of islands created by petrified coral and mangrove trees, small blips of land filled in with sand, rock and people’s dreams. It is simultaneously a paradise, and a Sodom, the denizen of artists, writers, vagabonds, thieves – and dreamers. It lives at the edge of the US, and as though the island knows this, she breathes it into the people who call the island home.

Key West “seceded” from the United States in 1982, after government blockades designed to shut down the drug trade stopped its tourist trade as well. Citizens of Key West rebelled, declared the lower keys separate and independent, and the Conch Republic was born. It is in jest, this Conch Republic status – kind of. Maybe. Her role as outcast pirate island is as real to the people of Key West as the daily drudgery of life and work.

The Schooner Wolf is the Conch Republic’s flagship, and when I stepped onto the docks of Key West’s Harbor that summer of ’96, I took one look at her sitting amongst the sleek boats that were there and said, “I want to learn to sail. And I want to learn on her.”

I found Captain Finbar, Wolf’s Captain and Owner, working at the boat one day. He was outfitted in full beard, long blonde-grey hair pulled back into a pony tail. A button-up white shirt. A ball cap with admiral’s wings on it. He was both formidable and approachable. Such is the way of the dichotomy of the pirate ship spirit.

“I’d like to work on the Wolf,” I told him.

“Ah. Have you ever worked on a ship before?” he asked.

Little butterflies entered my stomach. I wanted nothing more than to be on this boat. I willed it to be. “No,” I said. “But I’m a good learner.” A beat. “She’s beautiful,” I told him.

Captain Finbar nodded one time, looked down towards the deck of the boat where he stood, back at me on the land. “Aye. OK, come aboard tonight for our sunset sail. You can learn the ropes, see if you like it.”

I learned her customs, the commands, over a week. By the second week I had learned the ebb and flow of having customers on board to entertain for her evening sunset cruises. Within a month, I had learned the power of a crew, the beauty of a command given, and the heady rush in fulfilling it as part of a whole. We were an all-female crew aboard the Wolf, and what we lacked in muscle power we made up for in team work, communication, solid support. We were all in this together, against the waves, the wind, the sea.

I’d stopped speaking to my father before I’d moved to Key West, had all buy excommunicated him from my life, a reaction to the family secret. A punishment. I’d called my Mother the week before I moved to Key West for a summer, brushed aside her concerns that I wouldn’t return to school (she was right: I would not return until the following year). I went wild with freedom, but each night stepped aboard the Wolf to controlled discovery.

Finbar at the helm

Finbar at the helm

For all the ways I shoved my father out of my life that summer and fall, I found Captain Finbar. He was a man of few words, but he commanded, still: with solidarity, with loyalty and with trust, we followed his orders implicitly. We knew he had our best interests in the center of his sights. This is the thing that makes a great captain. It could be a wild place, this sea. Finbar did not seek to conquer it, merely to judge the winds and waves and current to get the ship on the best course for sail. I plugged him in to where my father used to be. I never fully knew him, but I knew that he would not let me down – would not let his crew down.

I stayed out of school for the fall semester, licking wounds in the sunsets. In those daily sails I found my strength, I found my team, I found my spirit and I found myself again.

#####

Yet by 2012, I was floundering again. My relationship with my father healed, grown up a few decades, more patient, I was still wrestling with finding men I could trust.

I sailed with the Wolf from Baltimore to Annapolis, spent a few days with her, and I began to heal again. For a few decades I had tried to solve it myself: with alcohol; with rampant biking, running and swimming until I’d blow out my knees and hips; with ever-rising levels of career success. None of them had helped, and I was now left with only this: a  string of lovers who didn’t work out. Relationships had become my salve, however ineffective, and I could not give them up. I picked partners wrong, I ignored signs I shouldn’t have, and when it didn’t work out, I picked again as quickly as possible to prove that I was good enough – that I had worth. Despite being emotionally intelligent, despite knowing that THIS was not the way to find love, I repeated the pattern again and again.

Departing, I would never be the same.

Departing, I would never be the same.

I saw the Wolf off to her next port in her East Coast Voyage of 2012 one early, hot, windless summer day in July 2012. We loaded up ice, prepared her lines, and I stepped onto the dock. Her engine fired up, a deep glug that reverberated over the water, around the dock, and into my solar plexus. As she pulled away, I let loose with a deep, guttural howl. “Aaahwooooooo!” A wolf howl, from deep inside, a resonating reminder to myself, to tje Wolf, that I remembered, now, who I was.

And I began my own journey to heal, in love, in life.

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True story: I was a pirate.

I didn’t dress up in some fancy costume: I didn’t throw out “Argh” and “matey!” and other pirate words. I never forced someone to walk the gang plank, nor did I bury any treasure.

I did, however, drink my share of rum: my clothes were ripped, torn, slightly dirty; showers were NOT daily, and I was probably slightly smelly. I wore an eye patch and a sword (it was plastic); and I had a pirate name (which, due to its nature, shall remain unnamed).

I was a pirate. Summer, 1996

I was a pirate. Summer, 1996

It was summer of 1996 and I was 21, taking a summer and semester off of school, escaping from a full college schedule and a job at a local TV station as the morning show producer. I was running, from some vague feeling of restlessness. Within a week of my arrival in Key West, I had managed to talk my way aboard The Topsail Schooner Wolf, a 74-foot, top sail, gaff-rigged schooner that ran tourists out for sunset sails off the shore of the keys. I was one of five of an all-woman crew aboard the ship, and we spent our evenings ushering tourists into the green, sea-foam waters becalmed by the oppressive windless summers that mark the summer months in the keys. We’d motor around for two hours, encouraging our guests to raise the sails and serving them cheap beer and wine. On the weekends, we’d dress up in rag-tag costumes sourced from the local Goodwill store, and we’d spin tales of knife-wielding passengers (true story), violent squalls and yearly water and food fights at sea against the US Coast Guard (also a true story).

At the end of my six months there, I’d learned to sail and I learned that adventure lay wherever you put it. I learned that just because it looked and felt like paradise, that didn’t make it so: that the possibility of adventure lay wherever you were willing to put it.

With time, I stopped mentioning the pirate part of my time aboard The Wolf. And with another decade, I’d nearly stopped mentioning my time in Key West at all, unless I was relating my story about getting the Bends (decompression sickness) while diving off the Bahamas to a fellow diver or sharing some insight on Key West. But for me the chapter had closed, and I had moved on with my typical East-Coast lifestyle.

And then, in 2012, the Wolf came back into my life.

***********

2012

Cowboy is all frenetic energy, ideas and stories. He is Thai-Vietnamese-American. Or Thai-Hawaiian. Or Vietnamese-Canadian-American. It’s hard to get a straight answer. He has been married, maybe a few times, has a few kids, loves Virginia Tech and Pho soup. He has run a business, is an expert cameraman and has been homeless. He is, technically, homeless now, save for a small bunk on the Wolf crammed full of him. He believes in angels and luck. His real name is Cao Boi, and no he does not have another last name. He is always talking, thinking, moving to the next thought, and talking. And he is gladly at the beck and call of Captain Finbar and the rest of the crew as cook, mate, galley wench, hop-to, instigator and mediator, and pirate on the Wolf. I know all of this in our five-minute walk to the local 7-Eleven where we are getting ice.

We troll back to the dock, lugging a cart of ice behind us together. Cowboy woke up 20 minutes ago: I woke up two hours ago and I cannot match his energy. I am merely trying to capture a bit of it. I imagine a lot of us around Cowboy are doing the same.  “So, Laura, tell me about yourself,” Cowboy says. “What’s your story?”

I have to think about that one, pause in its telling. “Well. I was married. Technically I still am, I guess.” In Maryland, you have to be separated for a year before you can even file the paperwork for a divorce. “It was a rough marriage, and even rougher separation. But it is getting better,” I tell him. I am only slightly uncomfortable with the telling: This is the first time I’ve really been able to succinctly sum up my current life, the first time I have told a stranger my story. It feels surreal, but it makes it final and real.

“I sailed on the Wolf for six months when I ran away to Key West from school and work. You know, for a break. I found the Wolf the first day I was in Key West and I said, ‘I want to learn to sail, and I want to sail on her,’” I tell him.

“Yes, The Wolf will do that,” Cowboy says. He squints at me from the side of his eyes. “I have been on and off the Wolf for six years. I have owned a camera shop, and done many things. I’ve been married — and divorced — too, and I have a son. But I always end up back with her. My family doesn’t understand it.”

But I do. I haven’t been on The Wolf since I visited Key West in 1997. But I still have dreams about sailing her.  For the past 15 years I have woken up in the middle of the night with glimmers of a dream where I was handling The Wolf’s lines again, making fast the jib sheet after a tack, battling epic forces of nature amid howling wind. There’s not a single boat I sail that doesn’t take me straight back to the decks of the Wolf. I have no other sea stories than those I gathered while I sailed her, but I don’t need more: She gave me plenty in those six months. “She is in my soul, Cowboy, and that was after a short time. I can’t imagine what happens if you’ve sailed on her for even longer.”

The Wolf  drifted on the Chesapeake that day

We sail her that day from Baltimore to Annapolis, where we exchange the “Conch Republic ” flag with the “Maritime Republic of Eastport” in a ceremony full of the nature of two pieces of the US that have jokingly seceded from their homelands — Key West from the United States, and Eastport from Annapolis. I spend three days with the Wolf and her crew, Captain Finbar and his pirate wife Julie, and at the end of it return back to my single family home in the burbs of Baltimore, while the crew journeys on their coastal tour of the US.

Later, after I see her and her crew off the docks of Annapolis, I am talking to my friend Karen. She knew I sailed on a “pirate ship” in Key West, saw the photo of the Wolf hanging on the wall in my office. She’d heard the stories, knew my journey there and back. But she hadn’t seen me on The Wolf, hadn’t realized the depth of her reach into my being. “The Wolf came in and saved you when you lived in Key West,” she says. “And she’s come back to save you again.” Until she said it so succinctly, I hadn’t realized that’s exactly what my time aboard her was doing this time, too.

************

We love pirates: something about the romanticism of the freedom that comes from being a pirate, the imagined carefree attitude to do what you want, when you want, beckons our internal sense of adventure. The rag-a-tag nature of pirates, the devil-may-care approach to life seems to answer the internal siren call of living life for life’s sake. It calls to us in the midst of how we really live it — get up, fight traffic, go to work, go home, do some errands, take care of all the stuff around the house and in our life. The life of a pirate, with few earthly possessions and calling a 6-by-4 foot berth and wherever it may be in port, “home” renews in us the right sense that there is, indeed, a life out there most of us are just not living — at least not the way we want.

Want to know what Happy looks like? Hang with Cao for a little while

Want to know what Happy looks like? Hang with Cao for a little while

In all the studies of what makes people happy – truly happy, fulfilled, experiencing life in a positive manner no matter age or life circumstances — “stuff” does not make the list.  Instead, new indications are that overall balance and harmony with the environment and with the individual’s sense of place in the world creates more happiness than any single indicator of wealth or power. Just ask the Kingdom of Bhutan in the Himilayas, which measure GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness) instead of GDP. New measures social scientists are using point to factors like access to health care, free time with family, natural resource conservation, a sense of giving back and other “soft measures” as being more indicative with overall happiness.  (Want to read more? I recommend, “A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom“). The documentary Happy sums it up succinctly: spend an hour and watch it to walk away feeling….. well, Happy.

So  maybe it’s not the swash buckling tales of pirates that have us so enraptured, as much as it is a sense that pirates, surely, must have had free time to explore and do the things that filled their soul.

After The Wolf left that summer in 2012, I embarked on my own land-loving adventure to rediscover what happiness really means — to re-capture those pieces of myself and my lifestyle back in my pirate days that had made me feel so at peace with the world and the ocean. I don’t know if I am there yet. But today I can say that almost every day, I live just a little piece of the Pirate’s Life.

Anonymity isn’t possible on Key West. It’s too small an island (2 by 4 miles for anyone tracking), the houses are too close, the people too known. Like the Midwest small town of the idolized 50s, everyone knows someone who knows you, and word travels fast.

KW Rush Hour

Morning Rush Hour, Key West Style

So there’s no road rage, no honking. People walk around with their heads up, rather than staring at the magical devices in their hands – unless it’s the tourists, using their map application to get three blocks up the road or posting their bragging-rights pictures from vacation. People leave their doors unlocked. When they are not home. For large stretches of time. And nothing disappears from them. About the only things that get stolen are bikes that aren’t locked up – more a crime of opportunity than of real piracy. Looting — itinerant, transient, homeless style.

Rush hour is non-existent – at least in the morning. Cars stack up all of 8 deep before the light changes, and everyone gets through. I have been too long in the city and as I walk past the workmen speaking Spanish and picking up their morning conleche (espresso style coffee with steamed milk and sugar so heavy it makes your mouth pucker), this strikes me as magical: a morning commute of ease. As the day wears on, traffic picks up, until by 3 pm it’s a steady stream of cars on all the major roads. But still, everyone makes the light.

KW Voodoo

Christmas & Voodoo

The sun shines down a majority of the days, turning the waters that surround the island alternating shades of aquamarine and pearled blue, depending on whether it’s a sand bottom or a grass bed underneath. Aside from the summer days when the ocean breeze fails to blow, it’s pretty much always warm. And even the cold days aren’t really all that cold – though they would be more tolerable if any of the houses had heaters. They don’t, aside from the odd, shared space heater.

It is a paradise. And yet, insanity clings to the edges of this island, where chickens have some of the best ocean views, and no one expects eggs from them. Christmas lights decorating the small shacks in Bahama Village (a villa within Key West’s Old Towne that was historically the gathering place of immigrant Bahamians) include Voodoo dolls – and they are not fake. Cuban migrants stillKW Refuges land on the shores of the island, unbidden but welcomed as brethren from the edge of the world.

Insanity. The inverse of sane, “of an undertaking or manner that is reasonable; sensible.” This makes the spirit of Key West not exactly reasonable. It also makes it – the part that’s not drunk or high — special.

Insanity. The tourists who flock in droves here, year-round now (there used to be a lull in the summer and in November to Christmas, but no more), pick up the hint of it and easily settle into the eddies that life at the edge brings. They turn it into a reason to drink, to party, 24-7 – except for the cruise ship visitors who use it as a reason to cram as much US paradise activities into their 5-hour shore call as only an American can.

KW Chickens

Prime chicken real estate

Except they are missing the true heart of the island that lives at the edge of the continental US. Embroiled in beer along Duval Street, liquor at Sunset Pier or revelry at Mallory Square (where hundreds gather each evening to watch the sun set into the water), they miss that they are in one of the few towns where you can still leave your doors unlocked, rush hour means an extra five minute commute and chickens have the prime real estate.

Maybe that’s what makes it paradise, more even that the sun, the water and the temp.

And about those chickens: What started out as a small flock providing eggs to a very good breakfast restaurant in Bahama Village (Blue Heaven, a definitive must) suddenly took root and multiplied, rapidly, in the early 2000s. No one seems to know why: Perhaps they just finally adapted to life on a hard-scrabble island with few worms but plenty of half-dead Sea creatures washed up in flotsam and seaweed – and garbage scraps.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta go on a chicken egg hunt. I’m on a budget.